When Fonteyn and BQ called on E.O. Hoppé

Margot Fonteyn was 16 when she visited the London studio of Emil Otto Hoppé.

The year was 1935, and by then, the handsome portraitist had photographed the leading members of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, travelled to the United States and Australia, and befriended the rich and famous, among them George Bernard Shaw, Havelock Ellis, the Bloomsbury set and the royal family.

He had taken his camera into the streets of London and photographed the homeless, bus drivers and men and women as they emerged from the underground.

So it’s no wonder he was able to capture the incandescence of Fonteyn in a portrait that hints of the inner strength and confidence she must have had, despite her youth.

No doubt she arrived at Hoppé’s studio, at 7 Cromwell Place, South Kensington, with her mother in tow, that is Mrs Hookham, also known as BQ or Black Queen, who controlled the destiny of her ballet prodigy and would have known of Hoppe’s celebrity status.

Hoppé’s portrait of Fonteyn is one of the most extraordinary in an exhibition that ends this week at the National Portrait Gallery of London.

Called Hoppé Portraits: Society, Studio and Street it brought together for the first time his modernist portraits alongside his documentary studies capturing the realities of day-to-day life in Britain between the wars.

Hoppé wrote of his career as a portraitist: “The personality of living people, dual and often multi-fold, is always more absorbing than that portrayed on canvas, and I have been lucky in that my calling as a portraitist has enabled me to peek behind the facades, as it were, of so many great and interesting men and women”.

Among them were many leading artists of the Ballets Russes.

Hoppé had met Diaghilev in Moscow, and was granted exclusive rights to photographing the ballet dancers when they were in England in 1911. With Tamara Karsavina, he also co-hosted two receptions for them at his studio.

This was at the Cromwell Place house where he lived from 1913, and which he called Millais House, in honour of the former owner, the artist, Sir John Everett Millais.

(When Hoppé moved out of the house in 1937, another dance photographer moved in – Gordon Anthony, brother of Ninette de Valois. It was subsequently the home of Francis Bacon.

I passed by the building today and there is no sign that anyone lives there now. The next-door neighbour is the French Ambassador to London and the Victoria & Albert Museum is just up the road.)

Hoppé was a great traveller and in 1930, spent nine months in Australia photographing the cities, the outback, the beaches, Aboriginal ceremonies and the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

He befriended Sydney Ure Smith and Charles Lloyd Jones whose department store, David Jones, hosted an exhibition of his Australian work.

Graham Howe, who initiated the NPG exhibition, and who was the founding director of the Australian Centre for Photography, is co-author of a book of Hoppé’s Australian photographs*.

Howe believes Hoppé influenced the work of such 20th century Australian-based photographers as Harold Cazneaux, Wolfgang Sievers, Max Dupain and David Moore.

Although the Hoppé exhibition has ended, the NPG is still showing Ballet in Focus, a collection of dance photographs taken at the Bassano Studios in London, in the first two decades of the 20th century.

* E.O Hoppé’s Australia, by Graham Howe and Erika Esau, is published by W.W. Norton & Company.

Photographs of Fonteyn, Nijinsky and Karsavina in this feature courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

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